July 31, 2014

THE CHAIR’S CORNER: The Growing World of Legal Entrepreneurs

Jennifer A. Rymell

According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), there were 46,364 new law school graduates in the United States in 2012. Of those graduates, some 5.1 percent indicated that they planned to start their own solo practice immediately after passing the bar exam. Since 2008 the number of new law graduates going into solo practice has steadily increased, hitting an all-time high in 2011 of 6.1 percent. Before 2008, only 3.5 percent or less of law school graduates were starting their own solo practice right out of law school. It is no secret that the economic downturn has had an impact on law firm, government, and corporate attorney positions, but is there something else that has contributed to this trend? Is the economy forcing lawyers to become solo practitioners or are they choosing that career path?

The technology surge that we have seen over recent years has brought forth a new breed of professionals. Traditional legal career paths are no longer as attractive as they once were. There is no guarantee that law firm, government, or corporate employment will provide long-term job or financial security. Entrepreneurship is the new hot career choice, and lawyers who go solo are contributing to that trend by being legal entrepreneurs. A Wall Street Journal article written in September 2013 stated that a “record number of high school and college students say they aspire to be entrepreneurs. At Yale University 20 percent of the undergraduates indicated they are pursuing entrepreneurship as a career.” The article went on to talk about why entrepreneurship is so popular, and two of the most-cited reasons are the same as those given by lawyers who want to work for themselves instead of joining a firm: independence and control.

Professionals are striving to have a better work/life balance, and some only want to work part-time. Additionally, technology has made it easier to work from home with no support staff and only a few key pieces of equipment. Many lawyers say that a laptop, cell phone, and printer/scanner are all they need to conduct business efficiently. This translates into very little overhead and more money to put directly in their pockets. Don’t think this spirit of entrepreneurism is only for the young. It is not. There are also a growing number of baby boomers leaving big firm practice to start their own firms. Some baby boomers are forced to leave their firms owing to a mandatory retirement age, but they are not ready to leave the practice of law. Others seek the flexibility a solo practice can bring after many years of billing long hours.

Opening your own law firm can be an exhilarating yet daunting experience. Realistically, the needs of new graduates starting a solo practice are different from their more seasoned counterparts. More experienced lawyers going solo may be more challenged by the business and technology aspects of solo practice, while new lawyers are trying not only to master running a business but also educate themselves on substantive areas of law and procedure. The ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division (GPSolo) strives to provide broad-based resources that encompass the needs of both new and experienced lawyers who become legal entrepreneurs.

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